JL 2: 12-18
Gospel Mt 6: 1-6, 16-18
As we begin our annual Lenten observance, I have to admit that I have something of a love-hate relationship with Lent, and in particular with Ash Wednesday. I love that it is the most “irreligious” (i.e., critical of external religious practices) day in the liturgical calendar, the day that spends the most energy on telling people not to take their ritual performance as a mark of moral or spiritual perfection. As they are today, the readings are always something about religion being about a change of heart and life, not just about looking good: “rend your hearts, not your garments,” “don’t let people see you fast or give alms or pray,” that kind of thing. Even more personally, the words we hear when we receive the ashes cut right at my vain little heart: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Translation: Keep building sandcastles, but remember that the tide is coming in.
Yet paradoxically, Ash Wednesday is the day on which our churchgoing is most visible and on which we spend the most energy thinking about ourselves. My more liturgically expert colleagues and friends tell me that more people show up to church on Ash Wednesday than on any other day of the year, even more than Easter and Christmas – and it isn’t even a holy day of obligation. I can’t help but wonder if it is such a popular day because we are wearing a sign of our church attendance right on our foreheads – precisely what the readings warn us to beware…
Of course, we also spend an inordinate amount of mental energy on changing some pattern in our lives - giving up chocolate or caffeine or beer, doing our pushups every morning, whatever - for the next month and a half. Here’s my problem with that: we tend to think that the content of the discipline is less important than having a discipline. “What are you giving up for Lent?” means that giving up SOMETHING is what matters, but SOMETHING easily turns into ANYTHING. Except that the whole point of it, of any of the religious things we do, is the coming of the reign of God, the overcoming of everything that tears down the fullness of human life. That’s it. So say the documents of Vatican II: “the Church has but one sole purpose – that the Kingdom of God may come and the salvation of the human race be accomplished.” (Gaudium et Spes 45) It isn’t just that God likes it when we give things up; we are about the Kingdom of God, the healing and restoration of a world that is torn apart by greed and indifference, which means that WHAT we do matters.
This Lent, might our discipline be about something that actually responds to a bleeding world? Instead of (or if you must, in addition to) giving up something arbitrary, or doing something that just makes us feel good about ourselves, this Lent is a good time to commit to learning more, saying more, doing more about racism, classism, economic injustice, all the things that destroy life - not just for the next forty days, but in ways that we can't -- won't -- take back after the season ends.
Patrick Cousins works in the Department of Campus Ministry.